Nelson Mandela Foundation

Finding the Enemy: 1918 to 1944

Rolihlahla Mandela was born into an aristocratic family in the rural Eastern Cape, the son of a chief. After his father’s death he became the ward of the acting Thembu King Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who raised him at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. He also carried the clan name Madiba, the circumcision name Dalibhunga, and the English name Nelson (given to him by his teacher on his first day at school).

He attended Methodist mission schools before enrolling for a Bachelor of Arts at the prestigious University of Fort Hare in 1939. Effectively expelled from the university for protest action, he left with his studies incomplete. In 1941 he arrived in Johannesburg, having fled an arranged marriage, and after a brief interlude as a gold mine security guard he finished his degree by correspondence and worked as a clerk in a law firm. His thinking and values were a fusion of the traditional and the modern, the indigenous and the Western. In the townships of Johannesburg he was exposed to the poverty, deprivation and brutality of black urban life.

His earliest political influences were Gaur Radebe, Walter Sisulu and Anton Lembede. Sisulu became his mentor and a lifelong comrade and friend. In 1944 he joined the African National Congress when he co-founded its Youth League. He aligned himself with the Africanists, who resisted cooperation with Communists and organisations representing "non-Africans". It was at the Sisulu home that Mandela met and fell in love with Walter’s cousin, Evelyn Mase. They were married in 1944 and had four children.